British health campaigners warned Friday that surgery was being seen as an easy option to tackle obesity after new figures showed weight-loss operations have soared here in the past five years.
Figures from the state-run National Health Service's Information Centre showed 4,246 procedures for obesity were carried out in England in 2008-9, up from 480 in 2003-4 -- an increase of 785 percent.
"These figures just show how bad things have got with the obesity epidemic," said Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum, which seeks to raise awareness of the impact that growing rates of obesity have on the NHS.
He warned people were turning to surgery rather than trying to shed the weight naturally, saying: "We have alternative ways of losing weight but when people realise this is a possibility, they could go for it.
"A lot of doctors are also starting to skirt around the rules and not insist on months of lifestyle change and pharmaceutical treatment -- instead they are going straight for surgery."
But supporters of weight-loss operations argue they save the health service money, as obese people are at greater risk of dying or being hospitalised, and can suffer from a range of related illnesses.
Procedures include having a gastric band fitted, known as bariatric surgery, which reduces the size of the stomach, and a gastric bypass, where the small intestine is re-routed towards a small stomach pouch.
Peter Sedman, bariatric surgeon and spokesman for the Royal College of Surgeons, said: "The number of morbidly obese patients in the UK is increasing rapidly and we need to continue to put even more resources into what is proven to be a successful and cost-effective method of treatment.
"The burden on the NHS in years to come in obesity-related illness will otherwise be overwhelming."
A similar increase in surgery was recorded in a study published in the British Medical Journal on Friday. The researchers attributed part of this to an improved awareness among patients of surgery as a viable treatment option.
The NHS recommends surgery only for the morbidly obese -- people with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or more -- and patients must have failed first on other methods, such as traditional diets.